Exam season can be a very stressful time, not just for the teenager sitting the exams, but also for the whole family.
Such immense pressure, if left unmanaged, can cause a loss of focus, increasing anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Of course, study techniques and the need to revise and work hard are vital for exam success – but they can be put in jeopardy by stress and anxiety.
Fortunately, there are some simple stress management skills that will provide your step teen with the tools not only to deal with the emotional side of exam stress but also to manage other pressure situations they may encounter in the future.
The first thing to bear in mind is that exam stress does not just happen before an exam. It’s actually likely to occur in three different phases: before, during and after an exam.
Before the exam
The run-up to exam season can start months in advance, with an inability to sleep, irrational thoughts and worry. So make sure you talk things through with your step teenager well in advance of the exam.
- Firstly, find out what it is about the exams that are making them so worried. Let them know that it’s normal to feel this way and that such emotions are a good thing because they show that the exams matter to them.
- Encourage or help your step teen to make a revision plan. This will make them feel in control and more prepared. Random revision doesn’t work well enough; it doesn’t focus the mind, and it doesn’t ensure that the correct amount of time is spent on each topic. Discuss how much time needs to be spent revising each subject to achieve the grade your step teen wants.
- Look into alternative study techniques, as one of these may suit your step teen. For example, they could try mind mapping, being tested by friends and family, or recording notes and listening back to them on their mobile phones.
- Give them a positive mind. Help them to channel some thoughts that make them feel good, perhaps a memory of a family holiday or a day out can replace stressful thoughts. Reinforce this by getting them to write it down or even using a photograph of the event. Then prepare a cue word to capture the memory. In times of pressure, get them to refer to it.
- Teach your step teen how to breathe deeply. This is a great way of relaxing the mind and will put an end to the short, sharp breaths that come with stress. It also feeds oxygen to the brain, aiding clear thought. The technique involves inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for 7, building up to inhaling for 7 and exhaling for 11. The breath needs to come from deep within the tummy and should be accompanied by relaxing the shoulders and jaw.
- Encourage your step teen to do something active, even if it’s just going for a quick walk to the shops or with the dog. It really will make a difference.
- Make sure your step teen takes regular breaks from revision; otherwise, their mind will become too exhausted to process any information.
- Encourage your step teen to stay away from negative friends. Exam season is a stressful enough time without the presence of a friend who is convinced they’re going to fail everything. Such thoughts could start to rub off on them.
During the exam
Your step teenager will need a strategy to help them cope on the day of the exam by staying focused and feeling confident and in control in the exam room.
- Breathing techniques can help in an exam situation when the mind goes blank and the panic starts. Encourage them to remember that nice memory or cue word.
- Remember the positive thoughts from the exam preparation. If your step teen’s mind goes blank during an exam, they should stop writing, take a deep breath and remember their feel-good memory (above).
- Think about exam day clothes. What they wear to the exam needs to be comfortable, give them energy and make them feel good. Wearing something colourful or just a hint of their favourite colour could lift their mood.
After the exam
An initial feeling of relief at the end of an exam can quickly be replaced by anxiety as your step teen starts comparing answers with their friends. Barely half an hour after the exam has finished, your step teen could be more stressed than ever, thinking they’ve written the wrong answer and there’s no way of rectifying it.
This can have a knock-on effect on subsequent exams, so it’s vital that your step teen knows how to manage these feelings in order to be able to shift their focus to the next exam.
And even once all their exams have finished, your step teen may continue to feel stressed right up to results day.
- Explain to your step teen that there’s no point in comparing answers as they and their friends have no idea which answer was the right one. Reinforce the message that they did the best they could and it’s now out of their control – so now is the time to focus on what they can control, namely working towards the next exam.
- Talk through all the options available when they get their results, whatever the outcome. What would be the best and worst case scenarios? How will they deal with each? What’s the next step?
Angela Whitlock is a step parent to four children and an experienced teenage and stepfamily coach. She is also the author of The Accidental Parent series of advice books for stepfamilies. For more details and extra help on how to help your step teenager during exam season, download her ebook Stop Stressing Start Focusing.